By JIM NICHOLS
Especially with younger people, one cannot always be sure when they are listening. Their facial expressions and body language may well look distracted, but their ears (and hearts) may be listening well.
I was with the 13-year-old and the 15-year-old out for lunch, just the three of us. The conversation was just general chitchat. Speaking to the younger, I said, “Did you understand what I was talking to your mom and dad about last night at your house?” She replied, “Yes.” There was a pause. “Yes, I think so.” There was another pause. “I think so, but I wasn’t exactly sure.”
“I wanted to talk to them about some stuff related to the wills of Nana and me. Do you understand what a ‘will’ is?” She replied, “Yes, I think so.”
I continued. “A will is a legal paper designed to give some instructions as to what is supposed to happen to things when a person dies, like their house, car, furniture, and pets. There is another related paper that deals with a person before he or she actually dies. For example, when your other grandfather recently got sick and was in the hospital, he was not able to make decisions for himself. When the doctors felt that he needed certain medical treatments, he couldn’t, himself, make those decisions very well. Because of that, who made those decisions?” She answered, “Grandy.” (This is her other grandmother.)
“Right. Now, if Grandy were to get sick and be in the hospital, who would help her make decisions?” She answered, “My daddy and Uncle Jimmy.”
“Right. Now, we don’t know what might happen in the future, but it is a really good idea for adults to think about how medical decisions should be made and to write down instructions. Because of my work as a hospital chaplain, I have seen many families get upset when one of them needs some medical decisions to be made for them and the family members can’t agree on what to do. It can be a real mess and can make family members angry with one another.
“What I was talking to your mom and dad about last night concerned just that. If Nana were to get sick and unable to make decisions, I would make them for her. If I were to get sick and be unable to make decisions, she would make them for me. But, if both of us were sick at the same time, who would make decisions for us?”
Although the 15-year-old had not been present the previous evening, he, too, was listening quietly. I wondered how they were computing these thoughts.
“If neither Nana nor I could make decisions, logically we’d have to rely on our children. That would involve your mom, aunt, and uncle. I have talked to all of them about this before, but I thought it would be a good idea to talk again to each of them and make sure they understood what Nana and I were thinking. If the situation were to occur, we would assume they would act as a team to make good decisions, but, logically, it would make sense to have a “captain of the team.”
“That’s what that conversation was about last night.”
During my university teaching days, I often pondered how to deal with “heavy” topics with my students. On one hand, I felt an obligation (as an older and more experienced adult) to at least introduce them to some of the problems and decisions I am sure they will have to deal with in their lives. On the other hand, I did not want to quench their excitement and dreams with too much “serious” reality-check information. When you are twenty years old, perhaps you do not need some old guy trying to make life sound oh-so-somber. How much information and perspective is just the right amount? I never really solved that dilemma for myself and had the same thoughts as I talked to these teenagers that are part of my family. Even as I write this, I am wondering whether my words were appropriate and helpful. I do believe, however, that serious, honest talk is necessary sometimes. One does not need to dwell on such thoughts, but they do need to pass through our minds occasionally. Again, in a medical setting it is most unfortunate when families clearly have not had any conversations about the end of life; things can go downhill quickly in those families and it is too late for a chaplain or social worker or anyone else to make matters smoother.
As I review what I have written here, it occurs to me that the conversation with these two was much briefer than it took to write it down. That is comforting to me because I wanted to make my comments part of their understanding but not, at the same time, create fear or alarm in them. They asked no questions (even when I solicited them) as we sat at this restaurant table, but also seemed to be tuned in to what I was saying. I wanted to plant some seeds that might grow to healthy perceptions about life.
I got up from the table to throw away our trash and they began to arm-wrestle, so maybe things were OK.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.